Reverend Robert “Bob” Diggs is a well-known figure in Petersburg, where he’s served as Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church for almost thirteen years.
But he’s been a champion driver for nearly forty. “I started drag racing as most people who are baby boomers did, on the street,” Rev. Diggs says. He’s taken away his share of trophies from Virginia Motorsports Park, although he admits that things are a little different than when he started: “The ambulance is on site, versus when I was a kid, on some rural route out in the woods.”
Rev. Diggs first gunned an engine in Mathews County, where he grew up. After high school, he attended Norfolk State University. “While I was in ROTC, we would get a hundred dollars a month,” he remembers. “I built a 67 Camaro and would race at what was then called Suffolk Dragway. We’d spend weekends at the drag strip. Then I went into the Army and got out of it somewhat.”
After Howard University Seminary, he served as an Army Chaplain. Along the way, he taught at West Point, and was finally stationed at Fort Lee. While he was teaching college there, the Army offered him an early promotion to Colonel, and a re-location to Korea. Around the same time, the pastor at Tabernacle resigned. Diggs turned down the promotion, and came to serve at Tabernacle in the interim. While the Church searched for a permanent new pastor, they grew to love and trust Diggs. In 1997, they asked him to join them.
“I’m in the role of fulfilling a call,” Diggs says, “and in this case, a call to people that I did not know I would serve in a city I did not anticipate coming to. So that makes it even the more exciting. He’s given me the vision and a passion for the city and for the people. I’m just doing the will of God based on demand that he has for this particular area.”
Worshippers come from Petersburg and Fort Lee, the tri-county areas, Virginia State University, even Chesterfield and Chester. “It’s sort of like a down home church in the city, catering to the needs of anybody,” he says. “The motto is ‘A Concerned Church for All People.’”
And there’s something else: Rev. Diggs says with a grin, “The drag strip is about ten minutes away. So I built another 67 Camaro. I’ve been racing now I guess about seven or eight years.” In fact, the Church is where he initially parked his racecar until he could figure out how to tell his wife about his renewed hobby. That may be one reason he knows about a particularly moving phenomenon there: “If you were to ever come at sunset, and stand in the parking lot across the street at a certain time based on what month – everyday, the whole sanctuary turns gold. It’s from the gold glitter that they put in the stained glass to color it back in the day.”
Rev. Diggs is proud of Tabernacle’s rich history “back in the day,” and he is ambitious about what they can accomplish for Petersburg’s future. “When I came here, the church had only where the [Sanctuary] is,” he says. “I wrote a vision pamphlet for them as it relates to acquiring property.” Under his leadership, the Church purchased the land about a block down to Lee Ave., where blighted housing stood. “Where you have this 30,000 square foot building, is where you had 21 houses,” Rev. Diggs says. They operate a non-profit day care with before and after-school programs for pre-school children. In a partnership with the Sheriff’s Department, they offer extensive daily senior citizen’s recreational activities. Aided by the Susan B. Anthony Grant, they help provide mammograms and breast cancer awareness training.
Rev. Diggs no longer hides his racecars from his wife, director of counseling services at VSU. “The Mustang GT I drive, that’s a 2007. Most folks [are surprised to see ] a pastor driving a GT. But I couldn’t afford a GT when I was really wanting one,” he explains. “Now I can, so I enjoy the fact that it’s a nice car. I have two GTOs. They’re twin cars. One my dad gave me for my 18th birthday. Then I have a 67 Mustang. It’s actually going through restoration as we speak.”
For Rev. Diggs, racing is a way to draw closer to people, and to unwind. “Some guys like fishing. I do it when I really want to go out and think or I just have some down time,” he says. “But what I like about racing is the camaraderie and being with the common folk and being with guys who like tweaking on cars, and turning wrenches. Everybody has a similar bond. In some cases, they’re fanatic about cars.”
He sees racing as another opportunity to worship. “You’re prayerful during the event. You’re thankful after the event,” he says. “I can witness to others who don’t know Christ, to let them know that he’s a preacher, but he’s also like us. The ministry aspect when you’re at the track has reaped a lot of harvest.”
Written by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Photographed by Danny Holcomb